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Wonderquest: Level 8 Reflections

I’m up to Wonderquest‘s eighth level, which I think must be just about where I stopped the first time around. One thing in particular I remember: some dialogue where someone asks Chen the Scientist whether he believes in God. This isn’t something you often see discussed in games that aren’t specifically about God, although it’s plausible that it would come up in the circumstances. You’ve got a bunch of strangers from different walks of life and different cultures thrown together and relying on each other for survival over a longish period; it makes sense that they’d want to sound each other out on matters they consider important. But it would be an uncomfortable moment, and I remember it made me a little uncomfortable even to see it in the game back then, especially when the designated scientist replies that of course be believes, the signs of a guiding mind are all around us. What I didn’t remember, however, is that it’s all just a lead-in to a joke, a wink to the audience about how the world is made of tiles and has all these puzzles built into it.

We get a major new non-DROD-based element on level 8, beam emitters that emit beams that act as obstacles, kill stuff that’s in the way, and even slowly burn their way through forest tiles. Force arrows can deflect the beams, as can Lucas the Priest’s shiny crucifix, making him a great deal more useful, at least for the duration of this level. I had been thinking of Lucas as the one real downgrade character, characterized mainly by his movement limitations, never preferred, only used when the game forces the issue. But when you think about it, the real downgrade is the one you start with, Jax. There are very few situations where Nikolay the Archer isn’t simply preferable to him.

It’s worth noting that switching characters persists from room to room. If you leave a room in control of the Archer, you’ll still be the Archer when you enter the next room. The Second Sky tried to make it look like it had a similar system for its weapons, but I’m pretty sure that it was faking — that each room simply had its own default weapon, and the game contrived to make sure you were already wielding it before you entered. Whereas in Wonderquest, there are rooms you can enter as multiple different people. Usually this just means the room is partly water, and you can sail in from an adjacent room as Berk the Sailor, and have no place to land, and have to go somewhere else to come ashore and reach the room the proper way. Anything other than that risks breaking the puzzles by coming in with the wrong powers, and so rooms where you can change who you are tend to put unbypassable change-back-to-Jax tiles at all their exits. But there are secrets to be found by exploiting the exceptions.

At any rate, by level 8, the puzzles are getting quite complex, and character-switching and beam emitters are only part of it — although it should be remembered that complexity is pretty much orthogonal to difficulty, and some of the least complex puzzles in DROD are among the most difficult ones, including some that I’m still stuck on. One of the more convoluted multi-stage puzzles on level 8 is identified by a scroll on the ground as the first complete Wonderquest room ever made, which surprised me a little. I’d expect the first puzzle made to be one that uses fewer elements, so that you wouldn’t have to implement a whole bunch of new ideas to get it working.

Game Idea: Locked Room Mystery

A recently-announced game jam is giving me ideas — ideas that are probably too vague and ambitious for the jam, so I’m going to describe them here instead. The jam is titled “No Shit Sherlock“, and it bears this mission statement:

How many times have you bought a detective game hoping to feel like Sherlock Holmes and got disappointed? I’ll tell you. Too many.

Detective games are broken, most of them at least.

These games should be about feeling like the smartest person in the room. Seeing what everybody else missed and connecting the dots. Getting to that wonderful moment in which everything clicks and you figure out what’s going on.

Why aren’t we making better detective games? Well, because it’s damn hard. We need to experiment, go wild and try out new things. And when it comes to trying out new solutions nothing beats a jam. Let’s get together as a community and fix detective games for the sake of humanity

Now, a thing about game jams: The ideas you get are going to be influenced by whatever is on your mind, which tends to be the games you’ve been playing. For example, when there was a Myst jam a couple of years ago, I was spending a lot of time playing a tower defense game, and so it occurred to me that Myst‘s “Channelwood” section, with its network of walkways, bore a superficial resemblance to a tower defense, and I wound up making a tower-defense-ish thing in that setting. Nowadays, I have DROD on the mind, and it’s in that frame of mind that I read this announcement. And… it’s a surprisingly good fit. “That wonderful moment in which everything clicks and you figure out what’s going on”? The only difference between that and the the experience of discovering the lynchpin in a good DROD puzzle is the tense, whether you’re figuring out what already happened or what has to happen.

Locked room mysteries in particular resemble DROD puzzles, or a certain style of DROD puzzle: the ones that look flatly impossible until you have the right clever idea. Finding that clever idea is often a matter of deduction — once you have eliminated the unworkable, whatever remains, however difficult, must be correct. I’m imagining (vaguely) a game that makes this shared sensibility more explicit.

You’d have a room — probably a grid of discrete tiles, just like in DROD, to keep things simple. You’d start by being shown the room in its final state, as it was when the police arrived. DROD lets you right-click on elements to get more information about them, and Wonderquest does it on mere hover; dress this feature up with a magnifying-glass-shaped cursor and it becomes thematic. This would give the player some ability to learn about how things behave and start to form theories about what must have happened before proceeding to the second stage: reproducing events. A flashback, in which you control one suspect of your choice and try to make the room match the state in which you found it. All other suspects would behave according to simple deterministic rules, as would everything else in the environment. Maybe there would be obvious approaches that almost work, but not quite — the bloodstains are one tile away from they belong, or the broken glass is on the wrong side of the window. Any such discrepancies would be highlighted, and you’d get to try again.

The key thing here would be to try to eliminate ambiguity. It seems to me that most mystery games, if they make any attempt to induce clever deductions on the player’s part, fail by relying on assumptions that the player may not share. The player gives up and reads the solution, and at a crucial point it says “The only way to the second story window was by a ladder in the garage…” and the player’s response is “What? I could climb that wall!” A droddified reconstruction stage would make it clear exactly what the mechanics of the gameworld are, and thus what is and is not possible.

Wonderquest: Characters

Character-switching is really the main thing distinguishing Wonderquest from DROD, as far as I can tell. There are two ways it can happen. First, you can step on a tile that simply transforms the character under your control to a different one. The fiction is that all the characters in your party are travelling together, so I suppose this is an abstraction of giving a different person the lead. And he’ll remain in the lead even if you walk into a different room — often rooms will prevent this by putting tiles to change you back at all of a room’s exits, but there are occasional secrets guarded by obstacles that can only be overcome by transforming in another room some distance away.

But the more interesting way to switch, puzzle-wise, is the Party Splitter tiles. In any room containing Party Splitters, some will be marked with an icon and others will be empty. Step on one with an icon, and you gain control of the corresponding party member while leaving the one you were previously controlling behind. Once you’ve done that, you can step on an empty splitter of the same color to switch back, leaving your current character dormant at that spot. It’s kind of like switching back and forth between clones or squaddies in DROD, and has some of the same uses, like ping-ponging monsters around as they keep switching who to pursue. But unlike in DROD, you can’t just do it anywhere, and the characters are not interchangeable. They all have unique abilities and limitations. This makes the act of switching more interesting and meaningful.

Here are the abilities and limitations of the characters I’ve acquired so far.

Jax, the Beggar: The initial player character. Armed with a knife. Completely equivalent to Beethro in the DROD games.

Nikolay, the Archer (or Trekker, depending on which part of the UI you pay attention to): Capable of killing at a distance of five tiles, provided they’re in a straight line in one of the eight directions you can face. Perhaps ironically for an archer, he can’t step on force arrows. He can, however, climb towers that Jax can’t, and from atop them fire arrows over obstacles.

Berk, the Sailor: Capable of traveling on water, but can’t come on land unless it’s to step on a character-change or party-splitter tile, which seriously curbs his usefulness. Unique for not being displayed on the map as a human figure; instead, he’s shown as a little boat. No offensive capabilities. Honestly, he feels more like a mode of transportation than a character, but he uses the same character-changing mechanics as everyone else.

Lucas, the Priest: At this point, we abandon all attempt at linking the character’s profession to their abilities. Lucas’ main advantage is that he’s invisible to Eyes (which act just like the ones in DROD). The game explains this as him blinding them by reflecting light from his crucifix, which is also his weapon, equivalent to Jax’s knife. At any rate, it’s a fairly minor power, only useful because the puzzles are designed around it, and doesn’t feel like it makes up for his limitations: he can’t walk on grass, which is the main terrain type in most rooms, and he can’t move diagonally (another possible irony, considering how certain other games make their clergy only capable of moving diagonally). Not being able to move diagonally lets the author use him for pure Sokoban puzzles, which may or may not be a good thing for the work.

Chen, the Scientist: Another mishmash of disparate traits that don’t have much to do with his profession. He’s armed with a bamboo pole that sticks out in two opposite directions, letting him attack monsters on both sides at once. He can’t step on mud, which is usually where the Priest is found, as if science and religion are too incompatible to share turf. But most importantly, he can swim. He has to remain within 2 tiles of shore, but unlike Berk, he can land anyplace, provided it’s not mud.

It’s a highly international group, hailing from New York, Russia, Denmark, Brazil, and China. They’re all male, though.


It’s taken me a while to admit this, but I think that I’m going to have to do something I’ve never done before: shelve a main-line DROD title while it’s still incomplete. Oh, I’ll get back to it. But for now, I’m playing other things, including one thing that I had previously intended to start after beating The Second Sky: Wonderquest, the only known DROD imitation outside of that one room in Frog Fractions 2, the one that looks misleadingly like Nethack. FF2 does that a lot, hiding a game pastiche under the skin of a different game pastiche.

Wonderquest isn’t like that. It doesn’t hide what it’s imitating at all. It’s about as blatant an imitation as you can get. You hit orbs to open doors, your initial enemies are roaches which move exactly like DROD roaches, there are roach “spawners” that only differ from DROD roach queens in that their spawn cycle is 24 turns instead of 30. The initial player character even wears the same color of shirt as Beethro. So let me introduce Wonderquest further by describing how it’s different from DROD:

Instead of a dungeon, Wonderquest is set in a jungle. It’s functionally equivalent to a dungeon, just replacing stone walls with impassable forest. The player characters are from various places on Earth, and have no idea how they wound up there. Instead of a Smitemaster, your initial character is identified as a “Beggar”.

It’s not nearly as slick as DROD. The tiles are noisy and repetitive. The music and sound effects are low-fidelity. The controls are a little awkward, even after you rebind them to match the DROD keys — holding down a movement key to go faster here results in zooming out of control, and is almost always a bad idea. Movement is animated continuously rather than moving in discrete steps from tile to tile, which probably seemed like an improvement to the designer, but I find it just muddies my understanding of what’s going on. The dialogue, revealed entirely by stepping on scrolls, is pretty terrible. The whole thing is a little amateurish, but amateurish in a way that I find a little comforting, hearkening back to a less commercial age of indie game development. Retro, but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s doing it on purpose.

This extends to the puzzles as well, at least in the early stages. Lots of repetitive action, with enemies in quantities that don’t make the puzzles harder or more interesting. I suppose it’s really no worse that some of the stuff in King Dugan’s Dungeon, but even that comes as a shock after playing so much of The Second Sky. For example, here’s a puzzle with two chambers, where you have to do exactly the same thing to both chambers. TSS had a number of puzzles that looked like this at first glance, but some slight asymmetry — maybe even just the placement of the entrance — meant that the seemingly-identical parts had to be approached completely differently. Here, there’s no such subtlety.

That said, there are ways that it’s going beyond DROD, even in the first few levels. As I noted before, Wonderquest had tiles that change your weapon before DROD did, something that’s also true of force arrows that can be disabled like doors. Also, there’s an element that Wonderquest introduces on, a rolling ball that moves every turn in the same direction, unless stopped by a wall or redirected by a force arrow, potentially pushing crates or crushing monsters as it rolls, or activating orbs and pressure plates. This gets used a lot, sometimes in large quantities. There are rooms dominated by the balls bouncing around, a flurry of mechanical activity that ignores the player. Balls in isolated tracks are the main thing powering things like time limits and cyclical door-opening. One level in TSS had something similar to balls, rodent monsters called “lemmings” (presumably inspired by the game Lemmings) that move forward, ignoring the player, destroying everything destroyable in their path, but they were never as ubiquitous as the balls are here, or used with such versatility.

As I write this, I’ve reached a level with giant butterflies that move in knight’s-moves, an idea found nowhere in DROD — probably because there isn’t a lot you can do with it, puzzle-wise. But Wonderquest has lower standards for its puzzles, and is content with providing multiple rooms where you’re simply mobbed by a swarm of the things.

I know there’s a great deal more to come. I’ve played a few levels further than this, years ago, and remember some additional characters, with unique abilities. Also, the main UI has spots for a resource-gathering mechanic that I never played far enough to see. I hope to see it this time around.

The Second Sky: Movement Order

More than a week since my last post! I’m still playing The Second Sky, but I’ve slowed down considerably. I don’t play every day, and when I do, I consider it a good session if I finish even one room. A far cry from my reaction to The City Beneath.

It’s all because the puzzles — or at least, the endgame puzzles, which are still somewhat optional unless you’re stubborn enough to insist on the best ending — are so much harder this time around. Before this game, Journey to Rooted Hold was definitely the most difficult, even if you ignore the Challenges that consumed so many days on this blog. And given how much easier Gunthro was than The City Beneath, I really wasn’t anticipating such an extreme reversal. But it makes sense. We’re at the final chapter of the final chapter. If you’ve come this far, you’re an expert on everything the puzzle designers can throw at you. That means they can freely exploit minutiae like movement order.

See, every monster has a number, which you can see when you right-click on it. When you move, the monsters move in order from lowest to highest, and this can have effects on what happens. Consider a row of Roach Queens lined up against a wall, as in the screenshot. Roach Queens run away from the player, and prefer north/south to east/west movement when they’re blocked from moving diagonally. What happens when you move one square to the north? You can’t answer that from the screenshot; there isn’t enough information. If they’re arranged from east to west, such that the easternmost one moves first, then each roach will simply move one square southwest, except for the last, which will have no empty space to move into. The next turn, the same will happen again, except the last two will be blocked, and so forth until they’re all hugging the western wall. But if they’re arranged from west to east, the leftmost one will move south first, then the next one will be unable to move southwest and instead move south, and so forth. They’ll remain in a horizontal row and march south in lock-step.

The latter is in fact what happens in this puzzle, and it’s pretty easy to keep the roaches neatly ordered as you chase them south, then back north, then southwest, timing your actions to their spawn cycle. Which is good, because you need them in a row at the very end, for reasons I won’t go into. But before you get there, the geometry of the room acts against you, splitting the first and last roaches out of the line. By the end, you need to get the roaches in a different order, probably 3124, presumably by using the right-hand walls in just the right way. The uncertainty of my words comes from the fact that I haven’t yet solved this puzzle.

I’ve known since the very first DROD that movement order can make a difference, but I never needed to pay attention to it precisely. “Move these guys against walls some to get them to shuffle around” was always adequate. Here, I don’t just need to know movement order, I need to deliberately manipulate it. And that’s what this chapter is like.

The Second Sky: More Fluff

One of the larger (but not the largest) of the very large levels in The Second Sky‘s eleventh chapter is all about Fluff so let’s talk about Fluff. Fluff is depicted as cottony white clouds, but these clouds are as impassible as any other obstacle. It’s like tarstuff, in that it needs to be two tiles thick at all points, and when it isn’t, the thin parts break off into monsters, called Puffs. Or maybe it’s wrong to classify Puffs as “monsters” — they don’t count as such for level completion. Sometimes completing a Fluff room means fleeing just before the massed Puffs overwhelm you. Which they can do, because, like Wubbas and Serpents, you can’t hurt them with your sword.

Oh, they’re not unkillable. Explosions will take Puffs out, and if you have access to a pushing weapon, you can crush them against walls or obstacles, including other Puffs. Similarly, Fluff can’t be cut with sharp weapons, but only with blunt weapons or explosives. But not all Fluff rooms provide these things. Instead, the chief weakness of Puffs is that they’re slow. They only move once every five turns. They’re the only creature with this property, and it completely changes how you deal with them in puzzles. Among other things, it means they can’t cross Hot Tiles unless they’re pushed. Leading a Puff to an opportune spot involves a lot of waiting, and often you have to deal with other things while you’re waiting, so it’s more like just making sure you wind up in the right place relative to the Puff after every fifth turn.

Fluff, I say, is essentially a tarstuff, but it’s a peculiar form of tarstuff. It’s the only form of tarstuff that flies; in both Fluff and Puff forms, it can go over pits and water, and doesn’t trigger pressure plates. Also, there is no such thing as a Fluff Mother. Instead, there are vents, an architectural feature that cannot be killed. If a vent is covered by Fluff, then that Fluff expands every 30 turns by the normal Tar Mother expansion rules. If it’s not, then the vent simply emits a Puff instead. But vents tend to become covered by Fluff over time, because of Fluff’s most notable unique feature as a tarstuff: it can reform. Puffs adjacent to Fluff can merge with it. If four or more Puffs gather in a tar-stable shape, they meld into new Fluff.

I think the most important thing about Fluff, though, is that it hates all life. Puffs are the only thing that will actively pursue and kill both the player and the monsters — which is another good reason for excluding it from the “monster” category, because they don’t kill each other. (Slayers will sometimes kill monsters in pursuit of the player, but only because they’re in the way. They don’t hunt down monsters the way Puffs do.) There are multiple rooms with no monsters other than Puffs and the passive and immobile Brains, where your goal is to bring them together.

The great thing about all these unique features is that so many of them can be used in puzzles as either obstacles or solutions, depending on context. Puffs being slow is a good thing, until you need to get them somewhere within a time limit. Puffs attacking monsters is a good thing, unless you need the monster alive to weigh down a pressure plate or something. Puffs forming into new Fluff is good if you need to create an obstacle to keep that monster standing on the pressure plate, but bad if it blocks your only way out of the room. Vents are bad if they fill the room with inescapable Fluff, but good if they’re the only way to kill monsters. This is rich puzzle fodder, exactly the sort of thing DROD thrives on.

If a Puff dies over water, it lets out a burst of cold that freezes its tile into thin ice, which is equivalent to a trap door: you can walk on it once, but it collapses as you step off. I learned this in the first Fluff level, but there’s so much about Fluff that’s peculiar that I had completely forgotten this one detail the next time I needed it. I think this is the first time I’ve found the monster descriptions in the help menu really useful.

The Second Sky: The Final Chapter?

The Second Sky is the largest DROD by a very comfortable margin. That much is clear to me now. It’s like the designers, knowing that this was going to be the final episode, decided that they had to use all their ideas now. The thing is overflowing.

Previous episodes grouped rooms into levels, but TSS additionally groups levels into chapters. I suppose that’s essentially what Gunthro and the Epic Blunder did, too, but this time it’s more formalized, and there are more chapters. A chapter can be linear, going through a sequence of levels one after the next, or it can be open, just giving you access to a bunch of new levels and letting you flit between them as you like. I’ve been doing a lot of such flitting about, because the puzzles in this game aren’t just numerous, they’re also very hard.

I said earlier that I was hitting the end of the game, and just taking some time to finish up side-quests before finishing it off. The game encouraged this notion by providing an isolated campsite where I could go to wait out the Turning whenever I was so inclined. Obviously I wasn’t going to do that — not without finishing everything I had started! So over the past few days, I have taken care of unfinished business, even going back and clearing out the Tar Recycling Annex, which has nothing to do with Beethro’s goals at this point in the game but which does have a RCS stamp for my collection. It was here that I needed a bit of a nudge from the Caravel Forums hint boards, but only for one of the four rooms I had previously given up on.

And, having done all that, and having set the plot in motion again, I find that there’s an entire additional chapter, with some really big levels. I’m not as near the end as I had thought. The campsite is still there, in case I want to give up, but nah.

Without going into too much detail, Beethro’s plan for saving the surface-dwellers from the Turning in the chapter I just finished involves posing a really difficult question to the Truth Vessels, one that they’ll need to keep spawning more Truth Vessels sorcerer’s-apprentice style to answer. It’s another of those metaphor-for-game-design moments, Beethro trying to come up with an adequately difficult puzzle for a whole bunch of other people to solve. And there’s a neat bit of resonance there, because if the player decides to end the game early, it means Beethro gives up on looking for really tough puzzles for his audience, and the consequence for the player is that you miss out on a bunch of really tough puzzles. We are the Truth Vessels.

FreeCell Quest

It’s a habit that’s become as regular as clockwork: There’s a Steam sale. I buy some cheap stuff. Among the cheap stuff is some kind of Puzzle Quest imitation, which eats at least a day of my life. Even if it’s not particularly good, even if I have other games I’d rather be trying out in my limited time off, I wind up compulsively just-one-more-leveling to the exclusion of all other activities for a while. The one difference this time around is that I didn’t actually buy FreeCell Quest in the sale; it was in a Humble Bundle earlier in the month.

FreeCell, for all that it’s a form of solitaire, is at heart a puzzle game, and FreeCell Quest is a collection of intentionally designed FreeCell puzzles. The quest aspect adds context and flavor to that base, but skimps on story. You get a fantasy map to walk around on conquering cities by playing FreeCell at them, and that’s pretty much it for plot. The game says you’re “liberating” the cities from some evil force rather than conquering them, but in the absence of any information at all about the enemy, I’m taking that as a euphemism. As it is, all you every see of each town, fort, monastery, or other point of interest is a game of FreeCell, and in some cases a shop menu for buying upgrades.

Mechanically, though, it turns out to be one of the more satisfying entries in the Puzzle Quest-imitation genre. It actually goes to the effort of making the puzzles meaningfully different, for one thing. Each location has stats you can view on the map: how many columns, how many cards (from half a deck up to two decks shuffled together), how difficult the shuffle (which seems to have to do with whether the kings or the aces are in front). We quickly notice that these correlate with the location’s type: villages are wide, forts have difficult shuffles, etc. The number of cards simply increases across the board as you get farther from your initial location. It’s very easy to see these qualities as abstractions of the locations’ physical properties. That’s the kind of reading-into that I like to see in these games.

Battles are asymmetrical. The player’s stats are hit points and mana, which increase as you level up from winning battles, and defense, which increases as you buy better equipment with money from winning battles. The enemy doesn’t have hit points; you win a battle simply by sorting all the cards onto the foundations. Every once in a while in real time, the enemy attacks you by casting a spell from one of the cards that currently can’t be moved; if you can free the card before the spell is fully cast, the attack is canceled. You can cast spells as well. The cheapest spell, costing a mere 1 mana, is the Undo spell, which lets you take back a move. At first, I thought of this spell as theoretically useless: sure, it’s handy when you make a mistake, but an ideal player wouldn’t make mistakes. But it turns out to be very good for defense! Often, an attack will come from a card that’s buried under something you don’t really want to move, because the only place to move it to is an empty slot that you have other uses for. So what you do is, you move the cards to cancel the attack, then Undo. The attack remains canceled. There’s also a spell you can cast to just cancel any attack without moving any cards — this is, in fact, the spell I cast most frequently, because things are often trapped too deep for the Undo trick. But when you can pull it off, the Undo trick is significantly cheaper.

Most of your spells are about moving cards. For example, there’s a spell to move a card one spot forward in a column, a spell to rearrange an entire column at random, a spell to push kings all the way to the back. My favorite spell is one that plucks out a card that can be placed on a foundation from anywhere on the board, but it’s very expensive to cast. These are the sorts of spells I was wishing for in Runespell: Overture, ones that affect the mini-game layer instead of just the RPG layer. Their chief purpose in the game is to let you attack puzzles you’re not otherwise ready for by choosing to spend lots of mana instead of figuring out how to rearrange things manually. That’s important because of the way the game limits your access to cells.

Ordinarily, FreeCell gives you four cells that you can stash individual cards in. FreeCell Quest starts you off with only one, which means only the smallest and easiest puzzles are doable without the aid of spellcasting. Additional cells, to a maximum of six, must be earned through conquest. The game dresses this up in some additional complexity, but what it comes down to is that the number of cells you have correlates with the number of distinct locations you’ve beaten. As a result, cells are grindproof. You can always get more XP and money by replaying locations. Sometimes the game even forces you do to this, declaring that a town you’re passing through has fallen to the enemy and has to be re-liberated. But you only make progress towards a new cell when you beat something new. Cells are the most important upgrade there is, more powerful than health or mana, so that keeps driving you into new and more difficult territory, which forces you to take advantage of your spells to compensate for the cells you don’t have yet.

In short, there’s some good thought behind this game. Despite a day and a half of obsessive play, I haven’t beaten it yet — it’s pretty long. But I’ll probably keep coming back to it until I do.

The Second Sky: Arky Rooms

I’m in a position in The Second Sky that’s more familiar from JRPGs than from puzzle games: very near the end, but holding off on completing the game because I want to finish more side-quests first. In a RPG, there are usually practical justifications for this: completing those last few quests could give you items or other boosts that help you against the final boss. At the very least, you can expect to get a little extra XP in their pursuit. That doesn’t apply to DROD puzzles. Neither will the bonus puzzles become unavailable after I win. Nonetheless, it is lodged in my brain that this is the proper order to do things in. Side-quests, then victory, and then, because this is DROD, going back to hunt for the secrets I missed and unlock the Mastery area.

One thing I discovered in my last session: a secondary office for the new First Archivist, who Beethro calls “Arky” to distinguish him from the First Archivist who attacked the surface, containing a note explaining his puzzle design MO. I should note that Beethro and Arky are reconciled now; towards the end of the story, Beethro finally gives him the apology that was all he wanted all along. Beethro’s really grown as a person over the course of this episode. But even after he’s your friend, there are still “Arky rooms” to contend with. The “Inventory” room back at the train hub even tracks them as a special category.

Arky rooms are always secret rooms, and thus optional. Their hallmark is a note from Arky describing what makes the room impossible to solve. An actually impossible room is trivial to make, but the point is that these rooms look like puzzles, and this tricks delvers into trying to solve them. In fact, the rooms are perfectly solvable, and Arky’s explanations of why they’re not contain hidden false assumptions. The effect is to make Arky seem humorously incompetent, and this is heightened by the way that the notes describing tricking delvers have been left around for delvers to find.

There’s one other purpose for the notes: misdirection. If it weren’t for the notes, the player might not notice that the room is “impossible”. There’s one note that describes how opening the room’s tar gate requires clearing three invulnerable 2×2 bocks of tarstuff with only one powder keg. I read that note on entering the room, and sure enough: the room has blocks of gel, tar, and mud. The sole powder keg could be placed between two of them, but had to miss the third. I assert that it is the effect of the note that it took me as long as I did to realize: Hey, wait a minute, a 2×2 block of mud isn’t invulnerable! I can clear that with my sword! It was like the room’s punch line. Arky seems all the more incompetent for making such a stupid mistake, but then, through the note, he managed to pass his stupidity on to me. Perhaps he’s cleverer than he seems?

The note in the secondary office says that the main trick behind his puzzles is to make ones that he personally can’t solve. If someone else finds a solution, he pretends that it’s what he had in mind all along. If no one finds a solution, it just makes him seem cleverer than everyone else. And it’s got me thinking: This actually might not be a bad approach for puzzle design in DROD. Obviously you want to not actually release puzzles that no one has been able to solve, but the “Let someone try to solve something I think is impossible” part? DROD players have proven their ability to find solutions that the designers didn’t think of. That’s how we got the kill-the-Slayer Achievement in Journey to Rooted Hold. Or consider taking the same approach with yourself as the player: design a puzzle, then remove something that the solution to the puzzle relies on and try to solve it anyway. I suspect that some similar process is behind all the theme-and-variations puzzle designs in this game. I mentioned a pair of levels called Easy Way and Hard Way. I have since discovered that it continues into Harder Way and Hardest Way, four sets of the same puzzle designs with the solution to each made impossible in the next.

The Second Sky: Railroading

One of the big surprises in The Second Sky is that the Empire has an underground rail system. It was built mainly to facilitate the collection of surface-dwellers, but Beethro can ride it. He doesn’t even have to trick anyone or sneak on board or anything like that. Because he still holds the position of First Slayer from back in The City Beneath, the Empire’s resources are at his disposal, to some extent, when they aren’t trying to kill him. Once again, it must be remembered that the Empire has no coherent system of policy, and Beethro can easily be considered an enemy of the state one moment and a VIP the next.

After a certain point in the story, after helping Tendry get into some trouble, Beethro flees the Patronage’s robots —

There are robots in this game. I haven’t mentioned them before, but I’ve been seeing a lot of them lately. The game calls them “constructs”, to fit them a little better into the basically-still-a-fantasy-despite-all-the-sci-fi-stuff setting, but they’re clearly robots. They’re a little like smarter versions of golems, in that they leave a pile of debris when killed, but with one major difference: until you clear the room, robot debris comes back to life every 30 turns. They remind me of the trolls in Nethack in that regard, and, like Nethack trolls, one way to keep them from reviving is to push them into a body of water with a pushing weapon. Another is to push them onto tiles infested with oremites, which they otherwise avoid. That’s a good example of how the game creates new exploitable complexity through special cases in combinations of elements, something that also reminds me of Nethack. There’s so much of this going on in the game that I don’t have time to describe it all in the kind of detail I gave to the earlier episodes.

Beethro flees the Patronage’s robots by getting on a train without an intended destination, just “Get me out of here”. He winds up at a forgotten station, which becomes a hub for side-quests. Once you have access to that, you can go anywhere in the world — okay, I talked about a world map before, but it turned out to be divided into sections, with only one section available at a time, and that limitation is gone. (Except that it won’t take me to the distant past, which is a bit of a shame, because I still have at least one unsolved puzzle back there. But we have the Restore menu for that.) In fact, the sections I passed through before seem to have sprouted some new levels, where I can go to solve bonus puzzles for collectibles, which are tracked at a special room in the train station. One of these collectibles: RCS tokens. I had found one of these earlier, before I had its context. “RCS” is the name of the train system, and what the tokens do is give you access to rooms containing nonogram puzzles laid out on the floor. Solve these, and your reward is more bonus levels.

I commented before about how each title in the DROD series does more with the bonus content than the last, and I was wondering how The Second Sky would manage to one-up Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, with its trail of clues leading to an entire extra level. It turns out that something like half the content of the game is extra levels this time.

The thing I really like about this is that it gives the game a sense of breadth. We’re not in a linear sequence of levels any more. We’re out exploring, pursuing whatever challenges we come across. It’s a design pattern I associate with JRPGs — most of the Final Fantasy games start off linear, but then you gain access to an airship and you’re suddenly free. I find it significant that the opening up of the DROD world is also accomplished by obtaining a vehicle, albeit one more suited to the largely subterranean setting.

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